The circumstances that led to Tuesday’s deadly accident in Svay Rieng province – a driver’s decision to turn his vehicle into potential oncoming traffic to pass a slower-moving motorist – would be familiar to anyone who has taken a bus, van or taxi on one of Cambodia’s national roads.
The consequences – 18 dead, and more seriously injured when the bus tore through a crowded passenger van – are familiar as well. Of 2,226 fatal road accidents last year, 11 per cent were related to vehicles illegally passing others, said Sovanratnak Sao, technical officer on road safety for the World Health Organization in Cambodia.
And buses have been of particular concern in recent years. In 2013, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport issued warnings to four bus companies for having an excessive number of crashes resulting from negligence. And despite promises in the interim to crack down on such fatal accidents, those who ply Cambodia’s roads regularly said that tragedies like Tuesday’s are the result of an inattention to other motorists among drivers that borders on routine.
Sarin, a bus driver for Phnom Penh Sorya Transportation who drives a regular route between the capital and Siem Reap province, said he undertakes a careful decision-making process when determining whether or not to pass on a road laden with slower-moving motorbikes and cars.
He added that while the company wants its buses arriving on schedule, drivers “are never blamed [when they don’t] as they understand the situation and our difficulty”.
But Sarin harboured no illusions that such tactics were universally employed. “Some other [bus] drivers do not care about the safety of others on the road,” he said.
That came as no revelation to Ean Rim, whose 27-year-old wife, Mon Sivon, was among the 18 killed in Svay Rieng. Rim said yesterday said that his wife and others chose to ride with the driver of the van because he had a reputation for safe driving. But, he continued, with so many others on the roads, driving carefully is no guarantee of arriving safely.
“The traffic is unspeakable at the moment,” Rim said yesterday. “There are many heavy trucks and buses [illegally passing] each other on the roads.”
The government has promised before to tackle the issue of road deaths – particularly those caused by bus crashes – though numbers remain stubbornly high. In fact, last year, both the number of accidents – more than 4,800 – and fatalities – more than 2,100 – represented an increase over 2013.
Following a spate of deadly accidents in a week’s span in 2013, a Ministry of Interior official said black boxes, not unlike those used by airlines, would be mandated for each of the passenger buses operating in the Kingdom. “We want the companies to put black boxes in the buses to follow the drivers and know how they are driving, and to check the speed they are driving at as well,” then-director of the Ministry of Interior’s Public Order Department Him Yan said more than three years ago now.
However, the department’s new boss, Lieutenant General Run Rathveasna, said yesterday he had never heard of the plan.
Chhoun Voun, deputy general director of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport’s General Department of Transport, said new traffic legislation, which passed into law in January, should lower the amount of collisions on the Kingdom’s roads.
If someone is found at fault for an accident resulting in a fatality, Voun said, they will now face a prison sentence of between one and three years and a fine of between 4 million and 15 million riel ($1,000 and $3,750). Causing a crash which results in multiple deaths is punishable with two to five years imprisonment and a 10 million to 25 million riel ($2,500 to $6,250) fine.
Indeed, Le Vang Phing, driver of the bus in Tuesday’s fatal accident, sits in a prison cell on reckless driving charges.
For his part, Lieutenant General Rathveasna promised that a combination of education and enforcement would ultimately lower the yearly death toll (74 garment workers alone were killed in traffic accidents last year).
“We need to cooperate together, including law enforcement officers, not just fines. We can see that about 50 to 60 per cent of road incident caused from speeding,” he said, pledging greater emphasis on both speeding violations and drunk driving.
But some, like well-known carrier Giant Ibis, say the current situation demands pro-active steps on the part of the bus companies themselves.
Yoy Vibol, a transport manager for the bus company in Phnom Penh, yesterday said that drivers there receive extensive training and drive in buses with GPS systems that monitor their speed, and are reprimanded if they surpass velocity regulations.
Drivers are told to only pass vehicles in front of them if the road is straight, and they can see no oncoming vehicles in the distance.
But those daily judgment calls ultimately put the responsibility into the lap of one man, said Sorya driver Sarin.
“We have to be careful when we take another side of the road,” he said. “[Some drivers] just drive fast, because they think the bus’ size makes it less dangerous, but they do not think about the danger they pose to others.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY